BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon said on Tuesday its army killed at least 222 Islamist militants from an al Qaeda-linked group in a 15-week battle at a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon.
The army finally took control of the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp on Sunday after more than three months of fierce battles, including air, sea and land bombardment against the entrenched Fatah al-Islam militants.
Defense Minister Elias al-Murr also said 202 militants were captured in the battles and an unknown number were buried in mass graves inside the largely destroyed camp.
“This victory uprooted the biggest threat that faced the Lebanese people because Fatah al-Islam was spreading like cancer cells to target each part of the nation,” Murr told a news briefing.
“The organization was aiming to isolate the north from Lebanon to create a terrorist emirate,” he said.
At least 42 civilians and 163 soldiers were killed, bringing the death toll to 427 — Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, speaking during a visit to Rome, said Lebanon was committed to rebuilding the camp and asked donor countries for help in relief and reconstruction.
But he said the state would regain “full control” and that the camp would become “a model of the real relationship and healthy relationship between the Lebanese and the Palestinians”.
The army’s head of intelligence said Fatah al-Islam was directly linked to al Qaeda.
The group has said it has no organizational ties to Osama bin Laden’s network and that its aims were to spread its hardline interpretation of Islam among Palestinians and to fight Israel.
But Brigadier General George Khoury told the same briefing: “All the investigations have confirmed that the Fatah al-Islam organization is linked to al Qaeda and is in continuous link and contact with it.”
“This was revealed through all the investigations that were carried out of captured elements, communications that occurred between al Qaeda cells outside Lebanon and confessions of captured people,” he said.
Most of the militants were foreign Arab fighters and some had fought in Iraq.
Lebanese soldiers who participated in the battles began returning to their bases on Tuesday as thousands of flag-waving Lebanese cheered them on the roads of northern Lebanon.
The army also said it had no information that linked the group to Syrian intelligence — a charge maintained by the anti-Syrian cabinet but denied by Fatah al-Islam and Damascus.
“In this issue specifically, we have no information that indicates this group’s link to Syrian intelligence. I want to affirm that the investigation on those captured has not ended ... and these investigations will reveal the truth in this matter,” army Chief of Staff Major General Shawki al-Masri said.
Masri also said the army’s entry to Nahr al-Bared did not mean it would go into other Palestinian camps in Lebanon but that the army would prevent “terrorist acts” wherever they happen, either inside or outside Palestinian camps.
Under a 1969 Arab agreement, the Lebanese army is banned from entering Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps. While the agreement was later annulled, it remained largely in place until the Nahr al-Bared battle began.
“Of course it will not be allowed for Nahr al-Bared to return to the way it was. The responsibility of security will only be that of the Lebanese security forces,” Masri said.
The government has said four Syrian members of Fatah al-Islam confessed to bombing two buses in February in a Christian area near Beirut.
Preliminary investigations also link the group with an assassination attack on a Christian minister in November.
Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Laila Bassam